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In Conversation with Professor Andre Geim

The MSI welcomed one of the university’s golden boys of graphene to share his experience of winning the 2010 Nobel Prize, how far he has come since levitating frogs, and where graphene research is going next

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The University of Manchester very proudly proclaims itself as the “home of graphene”. The National Graphene Institute leads the way in graphene research, as well as acting as a beacon for the university’s publicity efforts, with Prince William and Kate Middleton scheduled to visit Manchester to tour the facility later this month.

An In Conversation event at the Museum of Science and Industry is a rare opportunity to get to know one of the university’s well-known faces of graphene, Sir Professor Andre Geim, as he shares the stage with former journalist Roger Highfield, now director of external affairs at the Science Museum Group.

The conversation began with Andre and the audience being taken back to this time 6 years ago, when the Nobel prize winners were announced in 2010. Geim tells the audience quite  nonchalantly that he had spent several years at that point being told that if he lived long enough he would win the award, and that “it was an ordinary day, until I came to work and all the people started congratulating me. That’s it. Nothing special”.

Many people, including Highfield, thought the Nobel Prize in Physics for 2016 might be awarded for the discovery of gravitational waves earlier this year. Geim disagreed however, responding that the committee usually waits until all but three of the scientists working on a discovery have died before rewarding it to them. It is perhaps unsurprising then that the award went instead to the American researchers for their work on exotic matter in the 1970s and 80s.

Of course as well as his Nobel prize, Andre Geim is also infamous for the work which won him the Ig Nobel Prize in 2000; levitating frogs. This came about as a result of what he calls “friday night experiments”, when he has a chance to try whatever ideas he has at the time, no matter how off-the-wall they are. Geim describes this time as an attempt to deviate from the tough life of academia, with a heavy focus on getting published, which “from your scientific cradle to your scientific coffin, [is] a straight line [sic]”. This adventurous approach to science was highlighted throughout the conversation, with Geim stating that  “I’m not doing research, I’m doing only search.”

When asked for his opinion on Brexit and the “wail of horror” that has since emerged from the scientific community, with Highfield suggesting that Geim might appreciate that Britain is “venturing off into the great unknown”, he responded that if he went to the doctor and was prescribed medicine to cure all his problems, he would ask first whether the doctor had tried it on himself—failing that, he would want to know if it had at least been tried on frogs first. “I like to base my search on the previous knowledge”, he says, “this is unbelievable what happened”.

Geim has a special relationship with Manchester, and with the issues of immigration raised this summer during the Brexit debates. Having grown up in Russia with German parents, he talks about how he has always been the foreigner, “an alien among my own and on my own among aliens.” His 15 years in Manchester are now the longest he has ever lived in one place, and he talks in a heartfelt way about the research landscape in the UK, and the opportunities to do internationally competitive research that he has had in Manchester. Of course, he also jokes that it is a lovely city to work in because the rain means there are few distractions.

In his current research Geim works with what he calls “graphene 3.0”. Having moved on from researching graphene itself, before even winning the Nobel Prize, to other materials only a single atom thick, his current research involves disassembling lead into individual atomic layers and then trying to reassemble them into something that nature cannot provide. Geim describes this as “a Lego game played not with those cubes, but with individual atomic planes”.

We have a new toolbox thanks to graphene, which is being commercialised at an unprecedentedly fast rate. Geim argues that we are now moving from the “age of silica” to the “age of two-dimensional materials”—and that is an exciting time to be in Manchester.

A full recording of the event is available on the BBC Focus website.